The US Air Force official managing the B-21 Raider stealth bomber programme has offered an update on its progress.
The bomber, being developed and manufactured by Northrop Grumman, is beginning to “look like an airplane,” Randy Walden said.
The company is currently building the test aircraft at Plant 42 in Palmdale, California and the Air Force hopes it will be ready for its first flight by the end of next year.
“The first test aircraft is being built, and it’s starting to look like an airplane," Walden said. "Suppliers from across the country are delivering parts that are coming together now. Aircraft programs will always have a few surprises early on, and we won’t be any different, but overall the B-21 Raider is coming along nicely."
"The progress I saw today further adds to my confidence that the B-21 Raider will preserve our long range strike and penetrating bomber capability,” added Air Force General Timothy Ray, head of Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC). "We’re excited to get the B-21 Raider to bases in the mid-2020s."
Speaking at a Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies event, Mr Walden acknowledged some suppliers to the defence programme have been affected commercially by the Covid-19 pandemic and the halting of the 737 Max.
Spirit Aerosystems, which builds the large composite aerostructures for the B-21 bomber, also manufactures structural components for the 737 Max. Since the halting of Max production, employees who would normally work on the aircraft programme have been boosting production of the B-21 bomber. “The folks that are not manufacturing 737s and those components came over to our production line and really kind of beefed up — where people had some COVID issues — they beefed up that portion of our production,” he said. “Right now, the components that we’re building are really for the test fleet, but the good news: All of what we’re doing today is really insightful for what we’re doing for production in the future.”
Northrop Grumman’s contract for engineering and manufacturing development (including the first five aircraft) represents a $23.5 billion investment. The production contract could be worth $55 billion for 100 airplanes.
The key subcontractors for Northrop Grumman’s B-21 next generation bomber:
Spirit AeroSystems will manufacture the structural components, Pratt & Whitney will build the engines, BAE Systems will supply electronic defences and Collins Aerospace will provide flight controls.
The other subcontractors include: GKN Aerospace in St. Louis, Missouri; Janicki Industries in Sedro-Woolley, Washington; Orbital ATK in Clearfield, Utah and Dayton, Ohio.
The B-21 stealth bomber is scheduled to be rolled out for public view in 2021, and could fly as early as December 2021, according to USAF.
The B-21 is being assembled at a secure government-owned, contractor-operated facility known as Air Force Plant 42 near Palmdale, California.
Plant 42 has over three million square feet of industrial space and is near Edwards Air Force Base where the bomber will undergo flight testing.